LAWRENCEVILLE – Gwen Clary Painter, 57, will spend the next nine years in prison for embezzling funds from three victims, including an Emporia businessman.
In Brunswick Circuit Court last week, Judge Carson Saunders sentenced Painter to 435 years for 87 counts of embezzlement and suspended 426 years for 20 years. She was ordered to pay $535,060.95 in restitution. The breakdown is: C. K. Greene, the owner of Virginia Custom Thinning and Virginia Trees - $390,107.16, Greg Jones, the owner of Jones Timber Team - $58,221.51, and Jeff Andrews, the owner of RJA Fire Extinguisher Sales and Service - $86,732.29. Painter was placed on supervision for an indefinite time when released, ordered to submit a DNA sample, and ordered to have no contact with the victims or their families. Painter paid $1,000 in restitution leaving a balance of $435,060.95.
Prior to sentencing Painter apologized to the victims.
Painter pled guilty to 87 counts of embezzlement on Jan. 9.
Earlier Lezlie Green, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, said an indictment dated December 2018 included 59 counts and an indictment dated February 2019 included 28 counts for a total of 87 counts. The time frame was Dec. 27, 2011 to Oct. 16, 2018. Painter worked as a bookkeeper for Creedle, Jones & Alga when the embezzlement occurred. She had private clients as well.
Prior to sentencing Greene testified for the prosecution saying he received a degree in forestry from North Carolina State University and moved to Virginia in 1993. He said he is a buyer and selling of timber. One company handles the logging side of the business and the other company handles the trucking side.
“I am in the woods and I hired Creedle, Jones and Alga as a bookkeeper working with Gwen Painter. That frees me from a desk job,” Greene said.
Greene said he met with Painter usually on Wednesdays and would give her the bills to be paid.
“I would review the bills to be paid usually on Sunday. My staff gets paid on production and I would collect the tickets at the end of the week. I would keep a mental balance but I trusted Gwen to make sure I was in good standing with my creditors,” Greene said.
Greene said his company employs around 20 people, growing from 4 employees when he started business.
Green asked Greene to share how he felt when he learned of the embezzlement.
“I trusted Gwen for a decade. Sometimes when I wanted to buy a piece of equipment she would suggest waiting until spring. I was shell shocked, embarrassed when I found out,” Greene said.
Sergeant Joey Lopresti with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office investigated the case.
“I was the primary investigator. I would visit Gwen at her home, a double wide on Township Road. There were vehicles in the yard, not luxurious by any means,” Lopresti said.
Lopresti said when they realized the enormity of the case they developed a spreadsheet to keep track of the transactions. He emphasized that the embezzlement covered a period of seven years.
Matthew Paulk, defense attorney, questioned Lopresti about counts of the indictments in which no search warrant was issued. Paulk said those counts were included in the restitution amount.
Eric Clary, Painter’s brother, testified for the defense. He works for BastionPoint Technologies in Richmond. Clary said there are five children in the family: Lisa, Gwen, Denise, Sue and him. He said he could always go to Gwen when he needed advice. Clary described Painter as compassionate, willing to give you the shirt off her back, and always willing to help anybody in need.
“This is 1000% out of character for Gwen. It’s not the sister I know,” Clary said.
Clary said Painter suffered with numerous health problems and was on medication for back surgery. He said she is working long hours. Clary called attention to Painter forgetting conversations and pulling back from the family, which is not like her. Clary said Painter always had dogs and a dog named Spot died on Monday. Painter wrapped the dog in a blanket and kept the dog on the sofa until Thursday. He said once when they were in a car there was a car next to them and the man was smoking. She thought the smoke was a dog.
Clary said Painter was working at the Sunoco in South Hill and at Cracker Barrel in South Hill putting in 70 hours a week. He again stressed that Painter was hard working and this behavior was out of character.
Kenneth Clary testified for the defense, stating that he has known Painter all of his life. They grew up together. He testified that Painter was a caring, loving person who would give you the shirt off her back.
“She would support me and I would support her. I always knew that Gwen is the kind of person that’s ‘got your back’. When I first heard of the indictment I was very surprised. This is so out of character for her. I could always count on her. She would send you a text and end it with ‘love you to the moon and back’,” Clary stated.
Paulk asked for a recess to review and submit additional letters on Painter’s behalf.
In her closing statement Green said there were two indictments, one for 59 counts and one for 28 counts for a total of 87 counts, covering a period of seven years. She said each count represents 12 payments or transactions. Painter had access to the money and used it to pay her everyday expenses.
“There were three victims over a period of years. She was their bookkeeper, two loggers and a fire extinguisher company. Small business is the heart of Southside Virginia and one company went by the wayside and was not able to recover. Greg Jones is no longer in business,” Green said. “This is a loss to Brunswick County and to Southside Virginia.”
Green said Painter had one face for the public and one face that only she knew, stealing for years from people who trusted her. Green said Painter was paid a salary of $41,000 and earned an additional $13,000 from Jones. She said the sentencing guidelines called for 8 years and 10 months to 22 years. Green asked that Painter be sentenced within the guidelines.
Paulk painted a very different picture of the defendant. He said Painter did not use the money to take expensive vacations or buy luxury vehicles. Paulk said she was not living “high on the hog” but lived in a modest double wide with her husband. He said often people used funds to buy gifts for themselves.
“She is working two part time jobs going from white collar to blue collar working as a cook working for a little above minimum wage,” Paulk said.
Paulk said Painter has no past criminal history and was getting treatment for some mental health problems until the pandemic struck. He said she suffers from high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, has battled kidney cancer and is worried about being exposed to COVID-19 in the prison system.
Paulk asked for leniency calling attention to Painter’s bizarre behavior, leaving a dog wrapped in a blanket on the sofa for days. He said there is no violence saying that the guidelines call for a mandatory 10-year sentence for distribution of cocaine.
Paulk asked for home incarceration or work release. He said the guidelines are too high and again referenced Painter not having any prior criminal record. He asked the court to give Painter the opportunity to make the victims whole and offering some hope.
Green countered that liberty is a precious commodity. She objected to the court considering allowing Painter to have liberty by being placed on work release or home incarceration. Green said the guidelines are appropriated for 87 counts of embezzlement.
Prior to sentencing Saunders gave Painter the chance to address the court. She apologized to the victims.
The judge said there were aggravating and mitigating factors.
“You took advantage of people who trusted you. You pled guilty and took responsibility for your actions and you have no prior criminal record. I have reviewed the letters submitted on your behalf and they say you are a hard working, considerate person. Your brother testified that you would give people the shirt off your back,” Saunders said.
Saunders said Painter must be punished for the people she hurt. He said the court must also be concerned about rehabilitation. Saunders said he would sentence Painter at the low end of the sentencing guidelines.